Druskin, Yakov

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Yakov Druskin (1902-1980)

Yakov Semenovich Druskin was the longest-living member of the informal avant-garde literary-intellectual group called the Chinari (the “titled ones,” or “rankists”). In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Chinari included poets Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky and the philosopher Leonid Lipavsky, all of whom died young in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In spite of Druskin’s illustrious education in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, and music, he lived the modest life of a Leningrad evening school teacher. Although Druskin’s views developed over the course of six decades, his legacy has thus far only been published in part, and includes Near the Messengers (Vblizi vestnikov), Before Accessories of Something (Pered prinadlezhnostyami chego-libo), Jacob’s Ladder. Essays, Treatises, and Letters (Lestnitsa Iakova. Esse, traktaty, pis’ma), and Diaries (Dnevniki).

Druskin’s thought is profoundly personalistic, both in content and form. We may view his statement, “I thought through my life, and I lived through my thoughts,” as his motto (Dnevniki 11). Druskin’s diary, which he wrote over half a century (1928 to 1979) and which was published posthumously by his younger sister Lidiya Druskina, is titled Before Accessories of Something (Pered prinadlezhnostiami chego-libo), which suggests the existential position of man as thrown into a prefabricated world. This means that the objects before him belong not to him, but to some unknown and likely unanimated possessor to which he can only refer as “something.” Druskin’s thought is religious in nature, though apophatic, insofar as he identifies God by His absence: “… God is farther. God has no distances. He is not having. God, as a bearer, is beyond any definite place. But close to myself, in my own place, I noticed the bearer: it is a kind of absence” (Pered prinadlezhnostiami 53). This absence, however, is defined only in relation to the author’s self; it may not be identified as a realm of things or ideas. Druskin writes:

I used to begin from numbers and from trees, but now I’ve found a solid and reliable foundation: what has a relation to me, this is the beginning. Having a relation to me is a kind of absence. Events do not have a relation to me; I avoid them. /…/ Views and convictions do not interest me; I have no thoughts. (51)

This entry was written in 1932, at the very dawn of the existentialist tradition in the West, and Druskin anticipated its foundational precept that human existence is posited not in terms of ideas and thoughts, but instead in relation to some radical emptiness of meaning, which Druskin calls “absence.”

Though Druskin was a specialist in philosophy, mathematics, and music, he did not earn his living by these professions and resisted professional status in any field, preferring the position of the dilettante. Druskin refused to make universal claims, and instead focused his philosophy on the specificity of his own existence. In one of his notes from 1969, he writes, “I’ve thought throughout my life and I’ve lived throughout my thought” (Vblizi vestnikov 10). Not unexpectedly, there were several personal events in his life that left a decisive imprint upon his thinking. The most important among them, in his own view, was his awakening to thinking itself in May of 1911, at the age of nine. Among others of importance, he cites his 1928 conversion to Christianity (under the impact of Bach’s music), the death of his father in 1934, and his mother’s death in 1964. He called this last event his Jacob’s Ladder, because it showed him the way to another world.


Religious Existentialism

Druskin’s views may be characterized as religious existentialism, in which both components are equally important and practically indivisible. Space and time are the essential categories of his philosophy, and he specifies the touch as the basic unit of space and the moment as the indivisible unit of time. They are genuine “beginnings,” since they mark the relation of space and time to the individual. “Touch is the beginning. Where reasoning suddenly stops, where the system is broken, there a last remainder is present—there is touch” (52). In his terms, touch is the ultimate evidence of a reality that cannot be otherwise generalized. Similarly, Druskin considers the moment to be the irreducible unit of time, a time that kills the authenticity of existence by dissolving the moment of now in the flow of temporality.

I look at the world as a newborn. I am born all the time, but time kills me and I drift into the past. I want to live now, but now I’m only emerging; having emerged I cease to exist now because time carries me into the past. I accuse time: time created the boundary, time killed the feeling, time separated me from life, time destroyed the now, time carries death (52).

Thus the relativity of space and time, with the multiplicity of its physical manifestations, must be permanently overcome through the effort of the human being to be born anew every moment and to directly touch other beings. This is what it means to strive for complete authenticity in a world of substitutions and similitudes.

In Druskin’s view, only faith is capable of transgressing time and space and attaining the permanent “now.” Faith for Druskin is not a state of quiet bliss but rather a torment, since faith makes blasphemy possible, even inevitable. The non-believer, on the contrary, cannot fall into sin because he does not know God. He writes:

Whomever doesn’t know God cannot deny Him. A non-believer cannot blaspheme. He who doesn’t know Christ cannot crucify him. Only he who believes in God blasphemes, only he who believes in Christ crucifies him… I blaspheme and I crucify Christ. When I’m not crucified together with Christ, I crucify him. (119)

In this way, faith is an unbearable burden for the soul, since to live in faith is also to live in a permanent consciousness of one’s own sinfulness. Druskin’s philosophical diaries are full of self-denunciations: for him, every step of faith led him deeper into self-denial. In Druskin’s conception, guilt is an absolutely personal state of feeling that cannot be shared with anyone else.


Philosophy of the Self

For Druskin, the conventional Christian view that everyone is guilty in this world, as Fedor Dostoevsky expressed it powerfully in The Brothers Karamazov, was not acceptable. He argued that since the “I” cannot be generalized and transferred to another, the only pronoun compatible with being guilty is one’s own “I”.

I cannot generalize this proposition; I cannot say that this I is every I. If I say that each of us must consider ourselves guilty for everybody, then this proposition will lose its radical and existential character. If I am guilty for all, then the guilt is removed from all others. This proposition is not only single but unique, the most personal … Logic knows three kinds of propositions: general, particular and singular. But there are still other propositions which are not known to logic: they are absolutely subjective and unique. Such propositions relate only to myself … (166)

This is the basis of Druskin’s “methodology,” if this term can be applied to his principally anti-methodological stance: the idea that all of his judgements are applicable only to himself.

Druskin’s existentialism, however, refutes solipsistic self-concentration, the multiplying stages of self-reflection which lead to the hell of selfness. In one of his works, “The Vision of Non-Vision” (Videnie nevideniia), Druskin examines the multiplicity of selves that are opened in the process of looking at oneself in the mirror: “I, close to myself – alien to myself,” “I, close to my own self – alien to my own self” (258). He identifies nine successive selves, which are reminiscent of the circles of hell not only in quantity: “Here I have analyzed my own self, my “I’s” and “anti-I’s,” all my possibilities, and I have come to the last one, the most terrible: to the fiery Gehenna in my own self… (258).

The way out of this hell is through profound and truly religious communication with “the other.” The I-Thou relationship is one of the principal axes of Druskin’s world, which was revealed to him independently of Martin Buber’s and Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogical philosophies. Special meaning is given to the Thou, who becomes the center of intercommunion. For Druskin, communication does not mean opening one’s heart and speaking to another, but rather listening with one’s heart. Listening is a state of active silence.

To be capable of listening noumenally is often more important than speaking. I must listen and, while simply listening, remain silent, but in such a way that my silence is not just a simple fixation with a speaker’s words but an answer to his question …. The ability to listen is a gift from God, and if I don’t possess it I am guilty. (165-166)


Philosophy of Otherness: Neighboring Worlds and Messengers

Druskin uses the term “neighboring world” (sosednii mir), which was initially proposed by his friend, philosopher Leonid Lipavsky (1904–1941). Lipavsky was also a member of the Chinari group, which often created and used its own intellectual jargon. The category of the “neighboring world” is applicable to the worlds of other entities, be they people, animals, or inanimate objects.

We see and hear them, but sometimes understand nothing, and still want to feel at least something of their world … How does the semi-liquid jellyfish residing in the water feel? Is it possible to conceive a world in which there are differences only within one quality, for example, a world of differences only in temperature? What are the feelings and qualities of entities living in other, remote neighboring worlds, which may even be non-existent and only imaginable? A neighboring world may be within myself too. (9)

This notion of the neighboring world may be compared with the Formalist idea of estrangement, or defamiliarization, which was introduced into literary theory by Viktor Shklovsky, and also with Bakhtin’s concept of “being beyond.” Lipavsky and Druskin establish the category of otherness as essential for philosophy in general, not only for the comprehension of the outside world, but for self-knowledge as well. By treating any world as neighboring, one may come to the experience of the nature of one’s own world as a neighboring world. Any act of thinking objectifies its contents and at the same time attempts to reveal them from within. In the next move, Lipavsky and Druskin introduce the concept of the “messenger” (vestnik), or a representative of a neighboring world. Messengers are different from humans, but embody the capacity for subjectivity and self-expression in such a way as to resist objectification by the philosopher. Thus, the neighboring world of the jellyfish might be represented to the thinker by a messenger who is the bearer and conveyor of jellyfishness. This is not the “what” of the Platonic idea, but rather the “who” of post–Christian personalism. In the context of the European philosophical scene of the late 1920s and 1930s, the concepts of neighboring worlds and their messengers represent one of the earliest attempts to extend existential contemplation beyond human subjectivity. By establishing the neighboring worlds of other creatures as alternative existential positions, the members of Chinari sought to allow Being to speak on its own behalf through its messengers.


Freedom and Choice

The presence of a personal messenger, someone like an “alter-druskin,” inspired Druskin and allowed him to see the world differently and more creatively. The departure of his messenger, however, threw him into a state of emptiness, which he called “ignavia” (Latin for “apathy,” “sloth”). In this state, he compared himself to a speck of dust lost in infinity and could find nothing about which to think or write. We can find parallels between ignavia and the absurd in French existentialism, but what is characteristic of Russian existentialism is how it offered a way out of such a state. Whereas French existentialism (e.g., Jean-Paul Sartre) posits freedom as a mode of self-determination that overcomes absurdity, the way out of ignavia is through other-expression, via the messenger. Druskin criticizes the very concept of “freedom of the will,” which in his view was denounced by the Bible and the Gospels, by Augustine and Martin Luther, but has retained its grip on philosophy and found its zenith in the concept of autonomous choice. His point is that “freedom of choice is formally determined by choice itself” (179).

Druskin means that choice itself is a matter of necessity and thus cannot be free, which is echoed by Sartre’s famous proclamation that man is “condemned to be free.” In being obligated to choose moment by moment, the individual’s determination of one alternative condemns him to exclude every other possibility. Thus freedom, in practice, becomes a chain of necessary limitations. This fallen freedom

is determined by my passions and caprices, by my reason and will … By natural means, I cannot liberate myself from this freedom of choice which is slavery … But, “What is impossible for man is possible for God.” The slavery of the freedom of choice is overcome not through the denial of one of the offered possibilities but through the denial of the very situation of choice. (169)

Druskin finds that this situation of false choice may only be transcended in a supernatural way—through prayer, self-denial, and active love. When the human will embraces the infinity of God’s will, it alleviates the necessity of choice by behaving in the only way possible, meaning it now contains a freedom that is complete and not divided into alternatives. Individual freedom may only be substantiated by the transcendence of self.


Faith in the Absence of the Church

Druskin finds the philosophical foundation of religious belief in Husserl’s idea that “the boundaries of the empirical ‘I’ are broken by God, ‘I’ comes to ‘Thou’ through God” (167-168). In Druskin’s view, “Every ‘Thou’ can become for me an appropriate assistant—‘Thou’ for ‘I’. Then there is God between us even if we are not aware of it” (173).

Such a relationship constitutes the foundation of a genuine church, which he believed could not be found in any existing denomination. Druskin never joined any church or associated himself with a particular tradition, as he believed that all existing churches were in fact Judaic synagogues or heathen temples only pretending to be Christian. A real church is formed of personal relations between people, he argued. Druskin recalls Christ’s saying: “Where two or three gather for the sake of my name, there I will be with them” (118). However, he adds that he cannot find a second with whom he could taste the body and blood of Christ. Druskin’s entire body of thought is an attempt to create a Christian church on a purely existential foundation of loneliness, an attempt that never succeeded, thus imparting a tragic tone to his lifelong spiritual quest.

Mikhail Epstein, March 2018



Druskin, Yakov. Dnevniki. Ed. L. S. Druskina. Akademicheskii proekt, 1999.

—. Lestnitsa Iakova. Esse, traktaty, pis’ma. Ed. L. S. Druskina. Akademicheskii proekt, 2004.

—. “Pered prinadlezhnostiami chego-libo.” Nezamechennaia zemlia. Literaturno-khudozhestvennyi al’manakh. Assotsiatsiia “Novaia Literatura” Moskva-Peterburg, 1991, pp. 46-83, nezamechennaya_zemlya_1991__ocr.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2018.

—. Vblizi vestnikov. Ed. Genrikh Orlov. H.A.Frager & Co., 1988.

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